Sunday, May 31, 2020

‘Will the Caspian Flow into the Persian Gulf?’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 29 – Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have agreed to promote the expansion of rail traffic from their countries through Iran to Oman and thus to the world ocean, a path that China will likely be the biggest beneficiary of and that will challenge Moscow’s plans for north-south trade to pass through the Caucasus rather than Central Asia.

            In an article whose title echoes Boris Pilnyak’s 1931 novel, The Volga Flows into the Caspian, Russian commentator Aleksandr Shustov says officials from Tashkent and Ashgabat hope that expanding rail traffic in this way would help them compensate for pandemic losses in transit (

            But he notes these two countries won’t be the primary beneficiaries – neither produces significant amounts of finished goods trains would carry – and that the plans are likely to benefit China, despite the costs involved in shifting from different track gages, and undercut Russian plans for the north-south corridor, despite Moscow’s head start.  

            The promotion of a rail line out of Central Asia through Iran to the world ocean has been an on-again-off again project since the 1990s, Shustov says. Initially, it was pushed by those who simply wanted to reduce the influence of Russia in the region and then by China which hoped to use it as an additional part of its new Silk Rad strategy.

            But Western opposition to the involvement of Iran and Central Asian concerns that Chinese economic expansion would lead to the region’s political subordination to Beijing have slowed its realization. But the pandemic has so hurt the trade and transit position of the countries of the region that they have set aside these worried at least for now.

            Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are trying to sweeten the pot by involving Kazakhstan which does produce industrial exports in significant amounts and which is interested in alternative routes to world markets. Being able to go south would allow it to balance its current dependence on paths through Russia.

            Russia thus stands to lose its predominance if this route does expand, Shustov suggests. And its bet on the north-south route through the Caucasus on which it has placed so many hopes may soon gain a competitor which will simultaneously give Central Asian countries and Iran greater possibilities and allow China yet another way to bypass Russia on the route to Europe.

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